SUMMARY of ODA Brief 1998
This brief provides a blueprint for a new Ontario law, to be called the Ontarians with Disabilities Act. It is being submitted to the Ontario Legislature via the three Ontario political parties on April 22, 1998 by the Ontarians with Disabilities Act Committee. The ODA Committee is a broad-based coalition of individuals and community organizations, united to secure the enactment of a strong and effective new law to achieve a barrier- free Ontario for persons with disabilities.
On May 24, 1995, Premier Mike Harris gave a solemn written election pledge to the ODA Committee that if elected, he would take three important steps. First, he promised to enact the Ontarians with Disabilities Act in his first term in office. Second, he would work together with the ODA Committee to develop this new law. Third, he would channel new funding to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities. Two years ago, on May 16, 1996, the Ontario Legislature unanimously passed a resolution calling on the Ontario Government to pass the Ontarians with Disabilities Act and to work together with the ODA Committee to develop it.
After almost three years in office, the Harris Government has kept none of these commitments. The ODA Committee can wait no longer for the Ontario Government to conduct the public consultation which it had committed it would undertake before drafting this new law. There is a pressing need to start the long-overdue public discussion on the shape which the Ontarians with Disabilities Act should take. Because the Government has not even released its Discussion Paper on the Ontarians with Disabilities Act (which it has had in the works for many months), the ODA Committee has chosen to present this comprehensive brief on the Ontarians with Disabilities Act directly to the Ontario Legislature. This brief reflects extensive input gathered from across the province over a long period. The ODA Committee provides this brief to the Legislature and to the public in order to start a long-overdue public dialogue.
In releasing this brief, the ODA Committee renews its repeated and urgent request that the Government conduct a broad public consultation on the Ontarians with Disabilities Act before drafting this law. It is again urged that this public consultation must be wide open, fully accessible, and undertaken without preconditions. It should be conducted by accountable, elected members of the Legislature who have ultimate responsibility for this new legislation, and not by unaccountable bureaucrats or private consultants. The consultations must be held in public, and their results must be publicly available. The ODA Committee urges that this public consultation be designed to allow as many people with disabilities and community disability organizations as possible to come forward and thoroughly educate the Ontario Legislature on the barriers they face, and the measures necessary to effectively achieve a barrier-free Ontario.
The following is a summary of this brief's contents:
Chapter 1: The Immediate Need for the Ontarians with Disabilities Act - Now is the Time for Action
Chapter 1 gives a detailed explanation of why Ontario needs to enact a strong and effective Ontarians with Disabilities Act. It documents how Ontarians with disabilities are daily confronted by many serious barriers which impede their ability to participate fully in most of life's important opportunities that others take for granted, such as employment, education, public transportation, health care, communications, goods, services and facilities. These barriers inflict significant hardships on the 15 to 17% of Ontarians who now have disabilities. They will cause as much or more hardship to the rest of Ontario's population when they inevitably acquire disabilities in the future, as most people eventually do.
These barriers impose a significant cost on society as a whole. They force so many people with disabilities onto social assistance, when they would rather be employed and contributing as taxpayers. These existing barriers are made all the worse by the many new barriers that are now being created, and which could be prevented at virtually no cost.
A new, strong and effective law is needed to achieve the pressing goal of a barrier-free society for Ontarians with disabilities. This is because existing laws and programs have not and will not achieve this goal. The Charter of Rights includes a constitutional right to equality for persons with disabilities. However, it only imposes obligations on governments and not the private sector. It takes too many years and too much money to fight a successful Charter case in the courts.
The Ontario Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination because of disability in areas such as employment and housing. However, it will not achieve a barrier-free Ontario. It depends on private individuals to lay complaints, attacking one barrier at a time. The Human Rights Commission has been ineffective in this area, due to under-funding, case backlogs, and too-frequent rejection of disability cases.
The Ontario Building Code does not address many of the physical barriers confronting people with disabilities. It only governs construction of new buildings and the renovation of old buildings. Recent amendments have not turned it into an effective tool against barriers.
The only strategy to which the Harris Government appears committed in this area is its expectation that through voluntary measures undertaken by the Ontario Government and others, old barriers can be removed and new ones prevented. Yet, decades of bitter experience and the Ontario Government's own ineffectual track record with such voluntary measures proves that this is no solution at all. For example, Premier Harris committed to the voluntary measure of tackling barriers in the Ontario Public Service. Yet his government has adopted no plan nor implemented any real strategy to turn this empty rhetoric into real action.
Moreover, since 1995 numerous Ontario Government policies have had serious adverse impact on people with disabilities, in a manner which conflicts with the direction of the Premier's election promise to the ODA Committee. These have occurred as a result of provincial cuts, privatization and off-loading in areas such as health care, long term care, and the Human Rights Commission. It has also resulted from Ontario Public Service layoffs and employment policies. Unless a strong new law is enacted, it is more likely that more barriers will continue to be created, while most of the old barriers will remain in place.
Chapter 2: The Contents of the Ontarians with Disabilities Act
In the face of this pressing needs, Chapter 2 sets out a realistic and workable framework for the core ingredients that the Ontarians with Disabilities Act should contain to be meaningful and to have teeth. This new law must have as its goal the achievement of a barrier-free society for persons with disabilities in Ontario. To achieve this, it must guarantee to people with disabilities the right to fully participate in all aspects of Ontario life. it must require that barriers now impeding persons with disabilities be identified and removed in an orderly way. It must also require that new barriers be prevented before they are created.
The ODA must define "disability" broadly, so that people with disabilities secure the full benefit of its protection. It must apply to the full range of activities in society in which persons with disabilities would wish to fully participate, such as employment, housing, the enjoyment of goods, services and facilities, education at all levels, public transportation, and communications. It must cover the full range of barriers which can impede persons with disabilities, such as physical barriers, technological barriers, and legal and administrative barriers. It must apply to the activities of the Ontario Government, local regional and municipal governments, and to the private sector.
The ODA must include effective measures to ensure that enforcement of its requirements is effective, timely, economical, among these should be a system for government and private bodies to develop and implement barrier-free plans, which identify and plan for the effective removal of existing barriers in an orderly way, and which will implement effective procedures to prevent new barriers from being created. Government agencies, businesses and other agencies bound by the ODA should be required to develop and implement these plans.
Supplementing this would be a new process to make regulations to clarify the law's requirements in specific sectors of the economy. These regulations would help avoid the need for protracted and costly litigation for this purpose. Affected groups such as business and the disability community should have a chance to have input into the content of these regulations. The ODA should require that regulations be passed by a specific date in specific areas of activity to set out reasonable time lines for organizations to bring themselves into compliance with the ODA.
The ODA should require that the Ontario Government take additional steps to help work towards a barrier-free society. A minister should be appointed to spearhead and monitor Ontario's work towards a barrier-free society. Cabinet ministers should be legislatively directed to work towards removing barriers in the areas for which they are responsible. For example, the Health Minister should work with hospitals, doctors and others to achieve a barrier-free health care system. Major government regulatory agencies should have added to their mandate responsibility to ensure that those they regulate work towards being barrier-free. For example, when the Health Care Restructuring Commission decides which hospitals to close in a community, that Commission should be required to take into account, among other things, which hospital is more equipped to deliver barrier-free health care to patients with disabilities. Other government bodies such as municipalities and school boards should adopt similar procedures to ensure that they operate in a barrier-free way.
People with disabilities should be able to file complaints when they encounter a barrier, or when an organization does not otherwise comply with the ODA. The ODA will require an effective, accountable public agency to enforce it. The ODA Committee does not now take a position on whether this job should go to the Ontario Human Rights Commission. That underfunded agency cannot now discharge its current duties. Making things worse, the Harris Government broke its election promise to increase that Commission's funding.
The ODA should provide for meaningful and effective remedies, such as class actions, systemic remedies, injunctions and damages where appropriate.
To help organizations meet the new challenges which the ODA will present, the Ontario Government should be required to provide education and other information resources to companies, individuals and groups to assist them. People with disabilities must be involved in developing the education and providing technical assistance. The ODA should provide, where feasible, financial resources to assist organizations to achieve a barrier free society, such as subsidy programs and/or accelerated tax credits or deductions for expenditures specifically tied to compliance with the ODA. People with disabilities and their organizations should be provided the necessary technical expertise and funding so they can participate effectively in the processes created by the ODA.
The ODA must strengthen the existing protections for people with disabilities under the Ontario Human Rights Code, the Charter of Rights and the Ontario Building Code. Nothing in the ODA should reduce the protections for persons with disabilities in those laws. The fact that an organization complies with another law does not mean that they do not have to follow the ODA.
Appendix 1: Life in a Province Full of Barriers
Appendix 1 presents the result of the most comprehensive effort at reaching out to people with disabilities in Ontario to learn about the barriers they face in their daily lives, and the impact that these barriers have on them. The ODA Committee gathered this information through a written survey of its members and others interested, through public forums convened in 10 communities across Ontario (including Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa, Thunder Bay, Windsor, London, Kingston, Parry Sound, York Region and Peel Region and their neighbouring communities) and through other initiatives. It reveals a startling array of recurring impediments in a wide range of life's activities from employment, to education to health care to access to goods, services and facilities in the public and private sectors. These occur across Ontario, and victimize people with a wide range of physical, sensory and mental disabilities.
Appendix 2: The Public Supports the Need for the Ontarians with Disabilities Act
Appendix 2 reveals the strong public support for new legislation which seeks to address the barriers confronting people with disabilities. A public opinion survey conducted by the Canadian arm of the Lou Harris Polling Organization in the spring of 1997 objectively shows that a strong majority approve of such legislation, and feel that the cost is worth it. They recognize it is beneficial to society for persons with disabilities to get jobs.
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